"We are not the virus."

Health workers speak to UNICEF about their struggles

Jacques Gimeno
A group of health workers wearing face masks
UNICEF Philippines/2020/Jacques Gimeno
19 May 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Philippines in early March, people started looking for answers.

In a country that has faced disease outbreaks, the sight of doctors and nurses aiding the sick is comforting to many. It came as a surprise when some people started to turn against frontline health workers shortly after the lockdown in mid-March.

Reports of health workers being attacked became news, with many experiencing eviction, ridicule, and harassment. Despite public adulation for their heroic sacrifices, frontline health workers fear for their lives as the risk of stigmatization weighs almost as heavy as their exposure to the virus.

It’s lonely in the front line

One of the first to provide support as COVID-19 broke, UNICEF responded to requests from the Department of Health (DOH) and delivered tents to hospitals to help manage the triage and isolation of suspected cases and to increase the overall capacity for the response.

At Sta. Ana Hospital in the capital Manila, one of the government-run hospitals that received a UNICEF tent, the medical staff say they’re fortunate because the management provides living quarters and meals.

Being in the front line exposes them to immediate risks, so they’ve come to rely on each other.

But when they find themselves alone at times, fear gets to them and hits the hardest during end of shift.

UNICEF Philippines/2020

“We face an internal struggle at the end of the day,” says Jose Karganilla, a 32-year-old nurse. “What if I get sick? I’m on my own.”

His colleague and friend, Patrick Tan, 31, believes the pandemic makes some of them question why they do what they do. “Some of us struggle to accept that we’re risking our lives,” he says as he weighs his next words. “We’re working with one foot in the grave.”

Sanita Uy-Vistal, a laboratory scientist, praises her colleagues in the front line. But she sometimes wishes they could get support, too.

“People always see doctors and nurses. They don’t see the lab scientist behind all this,” Sanita says. “We handle the specimen for testing which exposes us to a greater risk.”

A health worker wearing a protective face shield and face mask stands outside a UNICEF tent
UNICEF Philippines/2020/Jacques Gimeno
Jose Karganilla, a nurse at Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila, inspects the UNICEF tent that will be used as a quarantine area for COVID-19 patients.

Finding the balance

With the number of cases increasing in the Philippines every day, DOH says some 15,000 additional medical personnel are need. Recently, the government enacted the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, a law improving support to health workers. The City of Manila followed suit with an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against health workers.

Jose is thrilled about these developments but cautions that he and his colleagues may be reaching the tipping point – physically and mentally.

“It’s not if, but when, we get sick. When I do, I hope I have enough strength to fight for my own life,” Jose says.

A health worker dons a PPE set
UNICEF Philippines/2020/Jacques Gimeno
Jose Karganilla, a nurse at Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila, dons his personal protective equipment as he prepares for a round swabbing of patients in the health facility.

For love of fellowmen and family

When asked why they continue to work despite the risks, they told UNICEF the same thing. They’re serving in very trying times, but every patient they send home alive and well far outweighs the negativity.

“Nursing isn’t just a profession, it’s a calling,” Patrick says. “My purpose is to help people and my colleagues.”

Jose, Sanita and Sarah have been away from home since March. Their families worry about the attacks and the news of over 1,000 medical personnel sick with COVID-19.

“I’m very happy when a patient gets well. I tell them to hold their family close, something I can’t do right now,” Jose says, apologizing for suddenly breaking into tears.

UNICEF has been supporting the Government of the Philippines in its COVID-19 response. To date, it has procured 72,000 sets of PPEs, 64 multi-purpose tents, and 200 mobile handwashing facilities to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). UNICEF has also been providing technical assistance to the government in risk communication and community engagement and in various training activities for the COVID-19 essential workforce such as infection, prevention and control training for community health workers reaching 2,800, and 719 health workers and sanitary engineers and inspectors.